Archive for the ‘sustainability’ Category

I’ve been walking to and from work downtown recently, depending on when I go relative to kids going to school or my wife going to work.

Today I rolled out of bed while everybody else was sleeping in, taking off to work in one of those beautiful mid-winter mornings in Fairbanks. New snow had blanketed the town during the late morning, and was still drifting down.

Snow in Fairbanks is unique to any place I’ve lived. It falls silently, rarely accompanied by any wind, and stacks quietly on any limbs, wires, or even twigs; forming an intricately woven organic lace of white on every tree, willow, or blade of grass long enough to still emerge from earlier snows.

It was a beautiful day for a walk, even if just to work.

After work, I headed home via the post office. It gave me an opportunity to cross the Cushman Street Bridge and pass by the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, as opposed to the pedestrian bridge where I usually cross the river.

I grew up Catholic, and although my views on religion stray far from the church these days, I still long for the spirituality and mysticism that can envelop a traditional mass. So much so, as I passed their front door, that I eyed the times for mass and even considered recruiting, or drafting, my family for a Christmas service.

I continued down the path, freshly cleaned of snow (the only disturbance during my early morning walk was the snow blower running over the church’s walks); to the little altar of stone for the Virgin Mary built in the Church’s front yard. The snow had been carefully brushed away from the altar. Within the apse, a statue of the virgin mother stands, surrounded by pots of brightly colored plastic flowers.

The irony of this little scene didn’t escape me.

So I stood there, in the low winter light of the Alaska midday sun, rays filtering through the branches of the snow covered birch trees, snow still softly falling upon me, surrounded by divinity as it was meant to be, in front of a poorly crafted altar to the mother of a god made in mankind’s own image.

I walked on, struck by the folly of man.

Of religion.

Of the obscenity of plastic flowers replacing real ones made by god.

Man does do it better, after all.

Meanwhile the pope is in Rome, railing against the evils of homosexuality, proclaiming how it will be the downfall of humanity.

Not overpopulation.

Not the disease, starvation, war, torture, abuse, injury, rape, environmental ruin or death brought on by overpopulation.

Just homosexuality.


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I woke up Thursday morning

And pulled myself from bed.

Struggling with issues at work

Left me exhausted even after sleep.

I got in my gas-guzzling truck

And drove the 20 miles to work.

On the radio

They spoke of hungry children in South Africa.

Who go to school on Thursday because they get fed

But don’t on Friday because they don’t.

My heart cried

But I didn’t.

Because I don’t.

I worked all morning


For some.

I got back in my gas guzzling truck

And went to pick up our dog.

From its haircut.

It wasn’t done.

I walked the pet store.

Cat food for cats with sensitive skin.

Cat food for obese cats.

Cat food for skinny cats.

No food for kids in South Africa.

No food for kids who are orphans in South Africa

With AIDS.

Just cat food.

I picked up the dog.

She doesn’t like me

But she was glad to see me.

Her haircut cost more than mine do.

I put her in my gas guzzling truck

And drove 20 miles home.

Inside my heart cried.

But I didn’t.

Because I don’t.

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Every now and then, an experience brings about a sudden and mind altering shift, or an expansion of my awareness. One might describe this as an epiphany, except in the instances I am describing there is no great understanding gained. I think it may be the opposite of an epiphany, if there is such a thing.

The closest I can come to describing the feeling is to say it must be how an arctic explorer must feel when crossing an ice field when suddenly the snow gives away, revealing a bottomless expanse of a crevasse below. At that moment the explorer knows exactly what fate lies in store for them, and that there is absolutely nothing he or she may do but keep moving across the snow bridge, waiting for the final collapse that will bring about their doom.

I most regularly feel the floor dropping out from under me when I fly outside (meaning outside the state of Alaska, or to the lower 48). Whenever the plane descends, provided it isn’t dark and I’m awake, I watch the brown haze over the skyline with a sense of wonder and alarm. I always wonder who else in the plane may notice it, and if they care. I always assume no one does, that it is accepted as a natural event, as much a part of the sky and air as the sun and clouds.

My unease with the brown air is reinforced by the scale of the microscopic neighborhoods and the miles, miles, and miles of roads and infrastructure. It is a delicate thing, our society, all held together in one complicated interactive mess by the thin tendril of plants and animals that dies eons ago. From the air, I see it’s delicacy, it’s folly, and eventual demise. The panic hits me so hard it makes me gasp for air.

It would be easy to pass off my experience as an intellectual act of delusion, except for the fact that this feeling, or drowning epiphany, comes about with no will or act on my part. Much like a true epiphany comes about in a sudden and startling clarity, this dark vision of our shared future comes upon me without effort on my part, it is as though my unconscious mind has pieced together a complicated puzzle to release upon my conscious self out of some deep seated level of depravity.

So, imagine my surprise when I’m walking innocently though, of all places, a furniture store, to suddenly feel the snow bridge drop from out from beneath my feet. There, in all of its stain resistant, overstuffed, plaid, solid, or striped glory was the story of our demise.

It may be a leap to go from a fold-out sofa to the collapse of civilization as we know it. At least it was for me, so it has taken me a while to process why a furniture store would initiate an instantaneous and completely involuntary feeling of impending disaster.

It doesn’t take too long to see the connection. Consider the size and proportion of contemporary furniture ensembles. Many people in our world today live in homes about the size of one American sofa box. We recently lived in a small house by American standards, about 1,200 to 1,300 square feet, built around 1940. We couldn’t have fit one of those couches in our living room, much less a whole set. It takes a good contemporary suburban home with disposable floor area to fit that type of furniture.

Within the furniture store, the pieces huddle across the show floor like pompous little men, each trying to outsize their neighbor with their bulk and their stature, features entirely irrelevant when it comes to measuring ones actual usefulness. Walk the entire showroom floor, and it is next to impossible to find a piece of furniture that reflects the aesthetic and functional utility of historic furniture styles. Its all about wealth, about presentation, about false pretenses.

And apparently it sells.

What does that mean for us? That we care more about appearances than we do equity with the people we share this planet with. That our furniture boxes would be a step up in housing for the world’s poor.

And so furniture stores don’t appear so innocuous now. And that has nothing to do with taste- that would require an entirely separate treatise on design.

Which isn’t nearly as relevant as wondering where humility and compassion fall amongst our cultural standards, if they do at all.

And so it is on to the next snow bridge, to rediscover warnings already seen but buried somewhere beneath my everyday facade, forgotten to allow some semblance of day to day function, or to uncover warnings anew, the next furniture store along a path that I fear holds many.

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The other day while dropping Jolie off at the orthodontist for their monthly adjustment to my bank account, I came across an ugly but all too common site.

Cigarette butts.

Not just a few, but a pack’s worth. All right there, in one pile.

I found myself looking around for the cancer riddled corpse that left them there.

Nobody. Someone that smoked that much at one time certainly would perish, wouldn’t they?

I expected someone without the decency to throw their trash away would have hung around, hacking and wheezing in our faces as they collapsed into their soft deathbed of cigarette butts, not even showing us the common courtesy of dying in private.

But then, why should they. All their smoking life, they have fouled our air, tossed cigarette butts out the car window, sparks flying into the dry roadside grass, even as smoke from forest fires nearby roll into town. Outside the grocery stores, convenience stores, schools, offices, and yes, even hospitals. Cigarette butts. Everywhere.

If I stood outside a public building, throwing gum wrappers on the ground, would people look the other way. I chew gum like some people smoke, 10 packs a day. That’s a lot of gum wrappers. Chances are I would get reported and ticketed for littering. Or at least asked to clean up my mess.

That’s what was on my mind as I walked out of the orthodontist’s office, through the drift of butts and back to my truck. Thank goodness I have a 4-wheel drive or I may have gotten stuck.

Of course, the other thing on my mind as I left the orthodontist’s office was money. In my mind, the two came together in an instant of shear brilliance. Either that, or I slipped and fell, completely missing the cigarette butts and cracking my skull against the pavement, returning to consciousness dreaming of money, eyes focused on cigarette butts.

Pick whatever story you like, personally I like brilliance.

The light bulb, we should tax cigarette butts. More accurately, we should tax cigarettes and offer a rebate for butts. 10 cents a butt. Not only would it clean up the streets, but I could collect enough cigarette butts right there in the orthodontist’s parking lot to pay Jolie’s bill, and probably have enough to make a down payment for Ali.

I could just go home, get my wheel barrow, a rake, and maybe a broom. And rubber gloves. Certainly rubber gloves. I could fill it up and wheel it up to the counter, redeeming my 10,000 cigarette butts for orthodontia for Jolie.

On second thought, maybe I should get that law passed first. They may not want 10,000 butts until they are worth something.

So, I came home and did a little research on the Internet to see who had stolen my idea. Google “cigarette butt tax“.

Wow! Apparently I’m not the only one to regain consciousness staring down a cigarette butt. Some people were so moved by the event they even acted on it. While I found people with the idea, I didn’t find anywhere that had actually passed an ordinance. If anyone out there knows of one, please share it along with news of the tax’s effectiveness.

What did catch my eye was the alarming amount of waste the butts generate and the negative environmental impact they have. That raises the stake from a momentary lack of reason to something worth getting worked up about.

Please check out the following links for some facts on the problem and it’s environmental impact.

Now, back to idea of a tax. Taxes work. In this instance consider every smoker paying 10 cents more per cigarette funding butt cleanup. Redemption could be done through machines (maybe Diebold could retrofit all those ‘reliable’ voting machines they’ve been selling us) so that nobody would have to handle the butts when redeemed. Smokers could get their money back when they turn their butts in.
Think about it.

“Hey dude, I’ll give you five butts for that last swallow of Thunderbird. Ten butts if you got any I-90 left.”

It would be like a new currency. People would wander the streets picking up cigarette butts instead of throwing them down.

And I could pay for my daughters to get their teeth straightened.


Pure brilliance.

(I didn’t really hit my head.)

(At least not that I remember.)

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I normally don’t read the editorials offered by our local newspaper, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. I won’t even comment on them, because it has been so long since I read them regularly that it would be unfair to do so. Suffice to say, at one point they were so mundane that they weren’t worth reading. The letters to the editor, on the other hand, are among the best things about the Fairbanks paper, other than its ability to start a fire in our wood stove. And even that is marginal.

On any given day the letters to the editor can bring tears to your eyes, of laughter generally but also of sorrow. It is the pulse of the community. Faster and more accurately than any news articles, you can tell what is on the community’s mind by delving into the letters. It is the home of the well intentioned, the activists, the lunatic fringe. And today I am one with them all.

It all began on Sunday, when I picked up the editorials section and headed for the letters to the editor. The newspapers editorial read “Powerhouse Nation“. I could not figure out what Powerhouse Nation referred or to what location in left field, or quite possibly right, that title have come from. In the end, curiosity killed the cat and I read the opinion.

If you are from Fairbanks, or not, please take the time to read the opinion at the link above. It is a highly regressive look at natural resource development as the cure to all evils, global, local, and economic. Personally I found it highly arrogant and bordering on racist, but mostly just incredibly shortsighted.

The text of my letter, officially joining me with the lunatic fringe of Fairbanks, is below:

I found your opinion “Powerhouse Nation” in Sunday’s paper at the best disturbing, at the worst regressive and possibly even bigoted.

The truth about our oil economy is that we are nearing the end. In my lifetime, we will be heating our homes, transporting our goods, and wrapping our products in something other than petroleum products. The question we should be asking is, will we be adjusting to that life with, or without, the wilderness Alaska is renown for?

As you correctly stated, the United States has reached its position in the world through its abundant resources. However, our natural resources are growing limited, and will continue to decline. We must look to other resources to keep our economy strong, those are our people, our freedom, and our innovation.

The possible 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil you mentioned would last the United States approximately five and a half years based upon current consumption numbers (http://www.eia.doe.gov/basics/quickoil.html). Five and a half years to put off the inevitable. Five and a half more years of SUV’s, over-sized homes and urban sprawl in exchange for the loss of the polar bear and walrus. For forever.

Regarding the remote village, threatened by being washed away but saved by industry, how very ‘white’ of you. Did you consider that the villagers live there to follow tradition, to the extent possible? Is it possible that some places don’t seek to be developed, that they don’t want to be just like everywhere else? I’m sure many Alaska Natives and Native Americans could expand better than I on how their lands and lives have been improved through development by people selling the same bill of goods you offered in your editorial.

Not everybody sees wilderness as a money making opportunity. Do these people deserve a place in our world today? Or are we destined to the same fate as the walrus and the polar bear?

Ultimately we can’t control the end of oil. But we can control whether future generations have the same access to undeveloped wilderness that we have enjoyed. Will our children look back and curse us over the species and wilderness lost, all for a few more years of us enjoying oil fueled luxury?

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Strangers are poisoning our children. They aren’t doing it in the dark of night, or by giving candy away at the bus stop. These strangers aren’t loners, they don’t wear old clothes, have greasy hair or drive rusty old cars. No, these strangers rub elbows with presidents and senators, wear three piece suits and sit in corner offices. They receive million dollar bonuses and stock options, they send their children to Ivy League Schools, and they decide what goes into your child’s body.

Ever since I can remember, the warning “Don’t take candy or gifts from strangers!” has been part of the national lexicon. I learned it when I was little, I repeat it to my children. Of course, the purpose of the saying is to protect our children from harm. But what happens when the gifts aren’t coming from strangers? When they come with corporate logos and are passed on by unsuspecting intermediaries, teachers, volunteers, and marketers.

Twice in the last six months my daughters have received giveaways, both times plastic bottles. The bottles are made of a plastic suspected of leaching bisphenol A into their contents. You can tell this type of plastic by looking for the #7 inside the recycle symbol on the bottom of the bottle.

What, you may ask, is bisphenol A and why should we be worried about it? For those of you uninterested in following links, let me say that bisphenol A is what is known as an endocrine disruptor, a widely distributed but little understood artificial chemical. Recent news articles report studies have shown the chemical to affect the reproductive systems of mice, along with obesity and cancer. For those of you who want to learn more, please follow the links below.

To be fair, I’ll let you read the chemical and plastic industry’s side of the story.  Keep in mind these people have decided what risk is acceptable for YOUR children. Are you OK with that?

As quickly as the news article comes out questioning the safety of the product, this site has a response denouncing the study. Note how they always reference meeting the governments minimum standards. Consider who is running our government. That’s right, the industry that is being regulated likely wrote the regulation. Make you feel better? Tossed out your bottle yet?

This is not a unique event. We’ve heard it all before. Lead, asbestos, tobacco all used the same tactics. As such, I think it fair to share a couple other links with you, from an industry who in the past made some of the same claims. You’ll see the wording is very similar, and they were successful for years and years (and profits and profits) by using these same stall tactics.

For your pleasure, the lead industry:

  • www.environmentaldefense.org (It is a dry read, but the lead industry was tremendously successful in putting off legislation long after it was first shown to damage childhood development. How many children suffered because of their greed? How many Einsteins have we lost do the cognitive abilities lost? We’ll never know.)
  • www.cincinnatichildrens.org (Great story on lead advertising.)

Second, the tobacco industry. Most of us have lived through this episode of corporate immorality, but here is a link to remind us of how bad it was:

And I’m letting asbestos off of the hook, for now.

So, decide for yourself. Are you comfortable letting a stranger profit from putting your child at risk? Should they, or do they, have that right?

A teacher gave this bottle to Jolie. Jolie immediately flipped it over, disappointed to see the 7 on a bottle she had received as a reward for physical fitness. Physical fitness? “Get healthy,exercise , you’ll need those healthy habits to overcome the ill health caused by this bottle!”

Jolie told the teacher the bottle was bad. The response, “I’ve drank out of these bottles for years, there isn’t any problem.” More irony, the petroleum giant Conoco-Phillips’ name is plastered across the side of the bottle. Imagine that, a business that profits from the plastic industry distributing a plastic suspected of having health risks.

At a UAF hockey game last Friday night Wells-Fargo got into the act. They were giving away toxic bottles too. We got four. Jolie again expressed her disappointment. Our friend noted she had gotten one last year, and wasn’t sick yet. I didn’t say anything. The trouble with an endocrine disruptor is the damage may not be felt for years or generations. It is a risk I’d rather not take, even if I’m not around to see it.

So what do we do with the bottles? Throw them away? In this world, there is no away. We all drink the same water, breathe the same air, and eat the same food. Amounts of bisphenol A are likely present in all of us. They form part of a chemical cocktail consisting of all the toxins each of us have ingested over our lifetime. Has there been any testing on the cocktail effect? If one chemical is OK by itself, how is it with all the others? Does the plastic and chemical industry care? Probably not, since any negative effect will be due to multiple sources, any liability will be tough to prove.

I have two daughters. Each of them carries the eggs of any potential children they will ever have. Anything they are exposed to, their children, my grandchildren, are exposed to. They are both beautiful children, and I would do anything in my power to ensure they have long, healthy, and happy lives. Yet, I can’t protect them from everything. This time, I wasn’t even given the opportunity.

Why, when there are other viable options, do we put our children and future at risk? Why?

I find it hard to speak about this topic. The arrogance of industry, to think they get to decide what goes into my daughter’s bodies, overwhelms me.

I taught my daughters not to accept candy or gifts from strangers.

Was it enough?

Apparently not.

What can one do in the face of such evil?

The same thing I would do if a stranger entered our house and threatened my family.

Get mad as hell.

And fight back.

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Today I had to stop and fill gas. It is one of my least favorite things to do, but I couldn’t put it off any longer. Let’s just say it is a good thing I live up hill from town. We always fill at the east Fairbanks Fred Meyer’s store because we get a 10 cents per gallon discount for being regular shoppers there. I pulled into the gas pumps, just missed getting hit by someone pulling out while looking at their dashboard, and parked at one of the center pumps.

Embarrassingly, despite my environmental leanings and tree hugging credentials, I drive a 96 GMC extended cab sierra pick-up. IE, gas guzzler. But the price was right (thanks Mom and Dad) and it has been a good vehicle for getting around on some of our ventures into the Alaska wilderness. None the less, it leaves me more than a little depressed when I fill it up, and not just because of the hit my bank account takes.

I climbed out of the car and into the brisk 25 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, air. Depending on which bank thermometer you went with, it could have been as cold as 30 below, or as balmy as 22 below. Personally, I think the banks set their thermometers differently to give us some illusion that they aren’t all in cahoots. I, for one, don’t buy it.

Banks aside, I stood watching as the dollars on the meter quickly outpaced the gallons. It wasn’t much of a race, the dollars had a 3 to 1 advantage over the gallons (with my 10 cents discount).

As I was standing there, in my too light high water carhart pants and my boiled wool slippers, looking pretty much like a doofus (I’m entering my doofus phase), I spied the bundles of wood for sale next to pump attendants shack. Certainly, I’ve seen bundles of wood before. I’ve even seen this same brand. Today, standing in the cold, feeling guilty next to my inefficient truck, burdened by the necessity of having a gas fueled vehicle, the bundles of wood pushed me over the edge.

Let me clarify. Fairbanks sets in the middle of a boreal forest that stretches from Alaska to the Atlantic coast of Canada. We have no shortage of trees locally. Or firewood. But for some reason Fred Meyer is shipping logs in from Washington state. No less, using Oil to ship those logs in from Washington state. Oil that had probably been harvested on Alaska’s north slope, then shipped Seattle in order that it could power a barge to haul wood from Washington back to Fairbanks. (Like God, Football in Oklahoma, Oil gets the big ‘O’ in Alaska.)

Somebody, please explain the economy in that process. I don’t get it.

To top it off, the bundles are wrapped in plastic. PLASTIC. Not the stuff you want to burn in your wood stove, or use to start your fire with when burning your imported logs. (I didn’t check, maybe the logs are stamped with ‘Made in China’ somewhere.) Plastic, a non-renewable resource. Plastic, made of oil, that sometime in prior years may have flowed through Fairbanks heading south, returning now, to go into the landfill to be mined by some future generation in desperate need of petroleum products for things we take for granted, like say, medicine.

So, a wood industry, making a point of their “renewable” resource wood, uses plastic to keep their bundles together. Why not newsprint, or some other low-grade paper that could be used to start those logs on fire? Maybe it isn’t as cheap as plastic, but that may only be a matter of time, unless you figure all the oil making paper uses.

What about invasive species? We have infestations of insects threatening many of our trees and natural habitats in Alaska. Is there any threat from new invasions from these untreated woods being shipped in from the south? Honestly, I don’t know enough about it. But even if the likelihood of the imported wood being infected is minuscule, why expose our natural resources to any risk when we don’t need to?

And Fred Meyers, the store chain that brought re-usable grocery bags to the mainstream in Fairbanks, replacing their old plastic bags at the landfill with plastic wrap for logs. There are certainly sources for firewood locally, I wonder if they were explored? (That would be no.)

When the weight of our human folly comes crashing down upon, cleansing the surface of the earth of our collective stupidity, who do we have to blame besides ourselves?

OK, well maybe God.

And Exxon.

And Conoco-Philips.

And BP, how could I leave out BP?

But mostly just ourselves. Will we leave our children to bear that burden?

One last thing about the pallet of imported firewood bundles, it was almost sold out.

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Sunset printed an article in their January 2008 issue that offended my sustainability sensibilities (say that 5 time as quick as you can). They had an article about a second home, a cabin to be accurate, that they referred to as “true sustainable living.”

I disagreed, see below.

Dear Sunset,

In your January 2008 Issue, I took issue with your article Cutting-edge cabin. The first line sets a false premise for the article by stating “True sustainable living starts at home.” The article is not about a home, it is about a cabin, at best it could be called a second house (second home is a misnomer by any account).

What is sustainable about a second house (home, cabin, etc)? The answer, absolutely nothing.

It violates the simplest and most effective tenet of sustainability, reduce consumption. The best way to do this when considering building is, of course, by not building at all.

Not building would have preserved what I presume to be a natural site, maximized the reduction of energy and materials simply by not using any at all, and would have eliminated the transportation and infrastructure costs involved with getting to the cabin.

Furthermore, the cabin/second house phenomena is one that is haunting the real west. Lifelong westerners are finding they are no longer able to live in their hometowns as the influx of affluent latecomers buy up property for their second houses, or their high-end retirement homes. Secondly, this commonly takes place in the most beautiful of places, circling National Parks, National Forests, and public waterways with private landholdings, virtually isolating non-property owners from these national treasures except at the crowded visitor sites. Jackson Hole is an example of this tragedy, but certainly only one of many.

Kudos to the owner and designer for a beautiful property and cabin, if you must build this certainly is the way to do it.

To Sunset, I recognize you are a magazine of pleasantries, not activism, but please ensure when you claim a project is sustainable that it in fact is. Your story makes for a great title and glossy-prints, but does little to promote the real practice of sustainability or to protect the western way of life. Consider if each of us builds a second house in view of a beautiful setting. Clearly, the environmental impact would be enormous, not only to the environment at large but also to these remote places you celebrate in your pages.

‘Cutting-edge cabins’ may reduce the impact, but only marginally.

In closing, not achieving true sustainability, and recognizing it for what it is, threatens a final sunset on the many beautiful places, people and communities you publish. Please treat the subject with the seriousness and honesty it deserves.

Thank you,

name withheld

Fairbanks, Alaska

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